THE TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD OR HOW NOT TO DO IT AGAIN

From translations of Tibetan texts. Premiered at Café LaMama, NYC in January, 1983, produced by Ellen Stewart, directed by Assurbanipal Babilla, set designed and built by Jun Maeda, music by Steve Gorn. Cast included Cristobal Carambo, Hooshang Touzie, Ching Valdez, Du-Yee Chang, Robinson Youngblood, Sussan Deheim and Kevin O’Meara. Production photographer: Gerry Vezusso. Productions at Harvard, NYU, and in 1998 a Pilgrim Theatre production at the Boston Center for the Arts, directed by Kim Mancuso, music adapted by Katie Downs, cast including Kermit Dunkelberg and Max Palar.

Produced 2008 by Shantigar Foundation and Pilgrim Theater, performed Shelburne Falls, Montagu, and Northampton, Masschusetts, and in NYC at LaMama, ETC.  Director: Kim Mancuso, Cast: Court Dorsey, Kermit Dunkelberg, Susan Thompson.  Music: John Van Epps. Set: Jun Maeda. This production available for touring (email@Shantigar.org). 

FROM REVIEWS OF THE TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD

"You don’t have to share either the Buddhist belief in the transmigration of the soul after death or the somewhat specialized Tibetan attitude toward this belief to enjoy Jean-Claude van Itallie’s new spectacle, The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, or How Not To Do It Again.The text is simple and cogent, dignified without pretension." Michael Feingold, Village Voice.

"…much more than a deeply moving spectacle; it is a lesson in acceptance and resignation, a spiritual exercise. It shows that rebirth is not an enviable state since to be trapped in flesh again means to be plunged in an ocean of misery. And yet, like Sisyphus – who, once allowed to return to earth never wanted to reenter Hades — man longs for the green earth and his sensual body. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a magnificent text, and van Itallie has created a powerful dramatic version of this classic work. LaMama invites us to a solemn and ecstatic celebration of life and death. … It was one of those occasions where after five minutes I knew I was witnessing a masterpiece." Rosette Lamont,Other Stages.

The actor Richard Gere and the poet Diane di Prima wrote about The Tibetan Book of the Dead for Reading Aloud:

"Jean-Claude van Itallie, one of our most original playwrights and a longtime practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, has taken Guru Padmasambhava’s 8th century masterpiece, The Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo, or as it’s known in the west, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and rendered its essential brilliance into deeply moving and inspiring poems meant to be read aloud. Its sole intent is to pilot us wandering voyagers through the illusory and superstitious realms we call life and death.

"With constant reminders to pay attention and watch our minds, the poet urges us to come to our senses and remember our Nobly Born true selves completely beyond all designation, all hope and all tears…merging with the clear light bliss, no center, no circumference, an ocean with no boat…I love this little book. Read it aloud!" Richard Gere

"Jean-Claude van Itallie’s presentation of this old classic brings us face to face with the radiance and emptiness of our own minds. He has made new a relevant — even urgent — text: A guide for the continually arising moments of choice in our living and in dying." Diane di Prima

The Tibetan Book of the Dead was performed as an opera (and subtitled The Great Liberation Through Hearing), music by Ricky Ian Gordon, May 1996 at the Houston Grand Opera Studio, June 1996 at the American Musical Theatre Festival in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Produced 2008 by Shantigar Foundation and Pilgrim Theater, performed Shelburne Falls, Montagu, and Northampton, Masschusetts, and in NYC at LaMama, ETC.  Director: Kim Mancuso, Cast: Court Dorsey, Kermit Dunkelberg, Susan Thompson.  Music: John Van Epps. Set: Jun Maeda. This production available for touring (email@Shantigar.org). 

Published in America Hurrah and Other Plays, Grove/Atlanitc, 2001 and by Dramatists Play Service (acting edition).

 

The Tibetan Book of the Dead for Reading Aloud published by North Atlantic Press, 1999 includes the text, photos from the LaMama production as well as traditional Tibetan illustrative material.

Excerpt

To Friends of the Dying

Oh you,

Who have come to this place,

Sisters and brothers, friends,

This person is dying.

She (he) has not chosen to do so.

She is suffering greatly.

She has no home, no friends.

Falling as from a cliff,

She is entering a strange forest.

Driven by the winds, swept by the ocean,

She feels no solid ground.

She is embarking on a great battle.

Moved from state to state,

She is alone and helpless.

Embrace her with your love.

The Dying

My friend,

You are feeling heavy,

You can no longer open or close your eyes.

Blue, yellow, red and green are turning white.

Logic and the chair and the table are dissolving.

The earth element in your body is dissolving into water.

My friend,

Your mind is losing its hold,

You grab at this,

You grab at that.

Your blood is slowing,

You feel faint.

Logic and the chair and the table are dissolving.

No more external sounds,

No more internal sounds.

You have no saliva, no sweat.

Everything is drying.

The water element in your body is dissolving into fire.

My friend,

Now you feel cold.

You have a sense of far-off vastness,

And you seem to see fireflies, or sparks

Within smoke.

You can’t get enough air.

You are losing ground.

Everything seems hollow.

You try to remember who you love.

The fire element in your body is dissolving into air.

My friend,

Now you are losing your last touch with the world:

Your sense of taste.

The last sign:

A sputtering butter lamp,

About to go out.

The air element in your body is dissolving into ether.

The Moment of Death

My friend,

Now is the moment of death.

The time has come for you to start out.

You are going home.

Oh, Nobly Born,

Now is the moment.

Before you is mind, open and wide as space,

Simple, without center or circumference.

Now is the moment of death.

Your mind in this moment is total transparency:

No color, no substance, empty,

Sparkling, pure and vibrant,

A mass of light

Not stopped by any obstacle.

It has neither beginning nor end.

Go toward the light.

Merge with it.

Merge with the light.

Death has happened.

It happens to everyone...

Death has happened.

So nothing can hurt you.

You can’t die again.

Don’t be afraid.

Merge with the light. Merge. Merge.

2021©  Jean-Claude van Itallie—All rights reserved